Teachers prepare for the new school year as a distant bell tolls

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“For I am involved in mankind.”

– John Donne, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”


In your younger days as an educator, the missive arrived via snail mail in an envelope—an antiquated relic now—informing you of the new hires at your school, new administrative policies and, most importantly, the late-August date that faculty needed to report back to the building for the new school year.

These days, the blunt force of the missive is assuaged through a flurry of emails and attachments, but the conclusion hasn’t changed: The summer is over, and it’s time to get back to work, something you always meet with a certain ambivalence.

You’ve been fidgeting with curriculum most of the summer, pulling out the units that flopped and replacing them with ones that you’re cannot fail[1].

But this year, following 18 months of uncertainty where you needed to revolutionize the way you teach[2]; where for much of the year you stared at student avatars on screens, as opposed the living and breathing beings you normally see in class, there’s a dull pit in your gut as you wonder what this year’s classes might bring—the logistics and the optics.

You’ve been following the news—even while trying to wean yourself off the vicious cycles and social media—and you’re well aware of the Delta-variant that threatens to shut down some schools again[3], and the last thing you want is a repeat of last year—which almost unanimously—was the most difficult one of your career.[4]

So you pour a cup of coffee from the pot in your kitchen—one of the last you’ll leisurely drink after 8 a.m. before you start hurriedly filling your travel mug before tramping out the door at 6:30 a.m.—and contemplate creating plans for this year’s classes.

Then you pause. And sip. And pause again, maybe contemplating pouring a nip of whiskey into your cup.

Do you really know what the upcoming school year will look like? The messages from the state have been ambiguous at best. Every school district will assess their situation based on statistics that fluctuate and feel arbitrary.

Are you going to be required to wear a mask, even when vaccinated? Is mask-wearing in schools going to be an ethical Litmus test drawn along partisan lines?

Will any part of the job—the one where you deliver lessons to wonderful but sometimes reluctant young people looking at you in the front of the classroom trying to share your passions and earn their trusts—ever be the same again?

You skim through the emails in the in-box you spent a summer avoiding. You text your spouse at work[5]: I’ll be at work this time next week.

You rub your dog behind the ear; tickle their belly if they roll over. You try to avoid reading the news. You try to ignore your uncertainties, your anxieties about returning to school. You sip your coffee.

But, ultimately, you’ll make it work. You’re a teacher. It’s what you do.

________

[1] Here’s a hint: More units fail than the ones that really engage the students and make you seem like a genius.

[2] Many veteran teachers have correctly referred to teaching during the COVID-19 epidemic as their “second first-year teaching.”

[3] While in New Hampshire, this seems like a long-shot, you still wring your hands.

[4] One of the great things about remote learning was the way you’ve adapted to technology, as a necessity.

[5] Most spouses are not teachers and have had no compunctions about editorializing on teachers’ “sweet schedule.”